The blue door at the side of the White House podium slid open. “Hi everyone!” exclaimed Jen Psaki with a congeniality seldom heard in the briefing room in recent years.
The press secretary introduced Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, and stepped away from the podium only to hastily reach back for a face mask she had momentarily forgotten there. Warning reporters that their time with Sullivan was limited, she quipped: “I will be the bad cop as per usual over here.”
“Bad cop” is one of Psaki’s trademark phrases, along with “circle back” and “I don’t have anything more for you”. All are now becoming familiar to cable news viewers at the restored daily White House press briefing. After four madcap years of Donald Trump, the sessions are disorientingly civil, fact-based and unnewsy. In a word, “normal”.
“To actually hear questions and substantive answers is refreshing,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative author and broadcaster. “It does feel like something from a different era.”
Psaki is the most prominent public face of a Joe Biden administration that has pledged to restore order and trust with a press castigated by Trump as “the enemy of the people”. Its communications strategy has involved a blitz of speeches, briefings and policy documents, including thrice-weekly virtual sessions with experts on the coronavirus pandemic. Whereas Trump’s White House was a theatre of anarchic improvisation, Biden’s is a set where everyone sticks to the script.
At Thursday’s press briefing, Sullivan previewed Biden’s announcement cutting off support for Saudi military operations in Yemen. Psaki wielding a giant briefing book, reeled off facts and figures about why the president’s $1.9tn Covid relief plan is essential. Then she took questions, starting with the Associated Press, another quietly revived tradition.
For the dozen or so reporters – masked and physically distanced due to coronavirus precautions – sitting in the blue seats of the compact briefing room, the back and forth is crisper than in the Trump era. There is a sense of kinetic energy that was lacking when the president himself could be rambling and soporific and when his press secretaries aimed sound bites mostly at cable news and YouTube.
But there is also a fast chess game taking place, with reporters moving pieces forward in search of a weakness and Psaki marshaling her defenses to dodge questions or avoid a headline-generating gaffe. And when the pressure mounts, she has a queen’s gambit.
She told National Public Radio’s (NPR) humorous Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! program last weekend: “I have a little secret thing I do – maybe not secret because I’m telling all of you. But when reporters are getting really loud, or they’re starting to ask crazy questions, I just slow down my pace, and I talk very quietly, and I treat them like I’m an orderly sometimes in an insane asylum.”
But it is not all smooth-sailing.
There was a minor clean-up required this week when Psaki was asked about Trump’s much-mocked space force. The press secretary replied with more than a hint of sarcasm: “Wow. Space force. It’s the plane of today!” – a reference to a past question about the color scheme of Air Force One.
Republicans demanded an apology with the Alabama congressman Mike Rogers fulminating: “It’s concerning to see the Biden administration’s press secretary blatantly diminish an entire branch of our military as the punchline of a joke.” Psaki did not say sorry but did feel compelled to tweet recognition of the space force’s “important work”.
If the 42-year-old from Connecticut is a polished performer, it is because she has deep experience. She was a traveling press secretary for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, a state department spokesperson and, from 2015 to 2017, White House communications director. She was then a political commentator for CNN and a fellow at Georgetown University in Washington.
Mike McCurry, a former White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, is an acquaintance who has offered Psaki occasional advice such as “keep a good sense of humour” and “don’t let it consume every bit of your life”.
He said: “Two weeks in, she’s doing very well. She’s gives good, complete answers, She’s taken on some tough subjects. She knows how to kind of parry and thrust, as you have to do from the podium, and I think that the press appreciates it. There’s a requisite amount of spin that goes with the job to try to put things in a favorable light for the president but she doesn’t overdo that.”
That could not be said for Psaki’s predecessor, Kayleigh McEnany, who pushed false conspiracy theories about a stolen election and ended each briefing with a tirade against the “fake news” media. Compared to such cartoon villains, as they were perceived by critics, the new team of professional bureaucrats were bound to enjoy a honeymoon period.
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said: “Jen Psaki has become must-see TV. I think many people are glued to these press conferences. They’re longer than they used to be and she’s very good at what she does and, to the extent that she answers questions as truthfully as she can, it’s like being in a rainstorm after a drought.”
Communications strategy is an early case study in the question of whether Trump did change the presidency forever or the White House and other institutions are more resilient than often supposed and able to revert to Bush and Obama-era norms.
Those norms were hardly flawless. All presidents lie, argued Adam Serwer in the Atlantic magazine, providing a list of examples from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama and concluding that Biden will inevitably lie too when the public interest conflicts with the political interest of the White House. Trump’s narcissistic mendacity was hardly a solution to the problems of political doublespeak, but a snap back to the previous norm of evasiveness and spin may not be it either.
Where the Biden White House will also break from the immediate Trumpian past, Schiller predicted, is by giving a more prominent role to other officials. “Biden has explicitly chosen very experienced politicians for most of his key positions, people who have been in front of cameras before, people who know how to communicate for the most part. He will rely heavily on a lot of those cabinet secretaries to get out his message on particular policies and give them some autonomy and freedom to do that,” Schiller said.
Trump, by contrast, was often said to be his own communications director, press secretary and all-round salesman. He tormented his staff by upending their message of the day with heat-of-the-moment tweets that announced firings, threatened wars and dominated news cycles. But even some detractors admitted that it provided a real-time window on the president’s thinking unlike anything seen before.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “There’s no doubt that Donald Trump was a pioneer in the use of social media. He was able to drive the agenda in a way that few presidents have ever been able to do using Twitter.”
Meanwhile Biden generated the headline on the Mashable website: “Joe Biden’s first @POTUS tweet is refreshingly boring.” Indeed, Biden’s conventional tweets lack the personal authenticity not only of Trump but of social media savvy politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Given the president’s history of gaffes, this may be no bad thing, Jacobs added.
“With Biden there’s really no choice because he’s a guy who shares Trump’s problems with agenda control. Biden is only effective as a communicator as long as he’s being handed talking points. When he’s gone off script, it’s been a wild ride. He doesn’t have the communication skills of Trump and he is prone to seat-of-the-pants comments that are damaging.”
The Biden communications team was spared potentially troubling distraction last month when Trump was banned from Twitter, effectively cutting his mic. Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, does not miss him. “We didn’t learn anything from Donald Trump’s Twitter feed except that the man was an egomaniacal, hypersensitive petulant child,” he said.
“As president there is a way to use it that doesn’t come off like you’re sitting in your underwear at two in the morning tweeting manically because you just saw something online that that pissed you off.”